Samsung accelerates AI research

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Samsung accelerates AI research


If the past few years for Samsung Electronics has been about aggressively acquiring fledging start-ups and established tech companies, this year might be about one goal: perfecting artificial intelligence.

The tech giant’s latest acquisition is not a company, but a person. Samsung Electronics confirmed last week that it had hired a research director from Google to lead its development of artificial intelligence technology.

Larry Heck, 54, led the team behind Google’s voice assistant and moved to Samsung last November. He made his first public appearance as senior vice president of AI research at Samsung’s AI summit in Mountain View, California, last week.

Before Google, Heck was an engineer at Microsoft, leading its voice assistant project Cortana from 2009 to 2014. The renowned AI specialist has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a focus on speech processing.

Samsung’s recruitment of Heck follows recent moves to upgrade its research capacity in AI. As the world’s largest producer of smartphones, televisions and semiconductors, the tech giant hopes to develop software that seamlessly connects the various devices it makes. The company set a goal earlier this month to apply AI features to all Samsung-branded smart gadgets by 2020.

“AI and machine learning are major strategic imperatives for Samsung,” Young Sohn, chief strategy officer at Samsung and chairman of the board at Harman International, said at the AI summit on Jan. 16. “There’s no doubt that, in the coming years, these technologies will completely change the way people interact with every device in their lives, from phones and wearables to home appliances and cars.”

Less than a year after purchasing Viv Labs, a Silicon Valley start-up founded by creators of Apple’s Siri, Samsung launched an AI Lab under the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology at the Universite de Montreal in Canada last August. The lab, located in the university’s campus, is devoted to developing AI algorithms and components for processes like voice and image recognition, translation and autonomous driving.

In a related move, Samsung consolidated some of its research units in November, merging the Digital Media and Communications Research Center, which had been in charge of studying smartphones, televisions and other consumer devices, with the Software Center to streamline research.

The merged entity is called Samsung Research and is now responsible for 24 research centers across the globe employing about 20,000 people.

Six days after the merger, the company announced it had acquired Fluenty, a Korean start-up that specializes in chatbots, for an undisclosed amount. It was the first time Samsung acquired a Korean local start-up.

The acquisition came amid the disappointing performance of Bixby, a voice assistant that Samsung released with the Galaxy S8 smartphone in March. It was initially only available in Korea, and other languages, including English, did not come out until July. Customers have complained that Bixby can barely understand what a user says and fails to properly react to instructions.

Koh Dong-jin, head of Samsung’s mobile business, said last October the company was in the middle of developing Bixby 2.0, which he expects to outperform its predecessor in terms of voice recognition, natural language processing and overall performance.

There have been rumors that the enhanced Bixby will be unveiled alongside the Galaxy S9 at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, next month, but industry sources say the debut will likely come much later this year.

Samsung refused to comment on the matter.

As part of efforts to improve Bixby and catch up to rivals like Amazon, Apple and Google, Samsung is hoping to work more closely with other companies and academic institutions.

During his appearance at the summit last week, Heck indicated the need for increased industry collaboration and advocated the importance of making AI open to third parties.

Samsung plans to open additional AI labs in Canada, Russia and the United Kingdom this year.

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